Clyde Built: Review September 2007

The Scots Magazine: Review September 2007

A Clyde steamer, painted off-white, specially strengthened for an Atlantic crossing, slipping discreetly away from its home river might not, to most people, be an obvious image of the American Civil War (1861-65). Yet, as Eric J. Graham shows in his fascinating Clyde Built: Blockade Runners, Cruisers And Armoured Rams Of The American Civil War, the Clyde was central to the Confederacy’s war effort and indeed its very survival.

The predominantly agricultural, cotton-growing, slave-owning states that seceded from the Union were ill equipped to fight a modern war. The Union navy blockaded Southern ports, restricting the Confederacy’s ability to import munitions and supplies, and also stopping the export of the main cash crop, cotton, which funded these vital imports.

The South turned to the world’s centre of shipbuilding excellence, the Clyde, and ordered fast, shallow draft steamers to run supplies in and out of ports like Charleston. Time did not always allow new tonnage to be built and owners of the fastest Clyde and West Coast steamers received generous offers from Confederate agents. 

These ships quietly slipped away to join the dangerous but potentially lucrative trade of blockade running. As a Glasgow newspaper wrote in 1862:The favourite and crack steamer Iona was withdrawn from her station between Glasgow and Ardrishaig . . . this withdrawal is caused by the Iona having been sold to the Confederates in America. It is also rumoured that the fine Belfast paddle steamer Giraffe and the West Highland steamer Clydesdale have also been disposed of to the same parties. If this be true, then the very flower of our Clyde passenger steamers will have been withdrawn.

The demand for new, faster ships, to outrun the Federal blockaders, gave a great impetus to improvements in ship and engine design on Clydeside. Huge fortunes could be made, two successful round trips could recoup the cost of a ship, and many prominent Scots, including the Dumbarton shipbuilder Peter Denny, invested in the companies operating these blockade runners.

Eric Graham gives intriguing accounts of the cloak and dagger world of Federal and Confederate agents watching Clyde shipyards and docks, of British companies acting as Southern intermediaries, of a Confederate safe-house at Bridge of Allan and of the elaborate steps taken to conceal movements of ships and men from British and U.S. authorities.

This war had a huge impact on Scotland, not just because 40 per cent of the blockade runners were Clyde built or because of the many Scots who crewed them. 

The blockade and the resultant cotton famine meant unemployment and poverty for Scottish textile workers and there was considerable tension between anti-slavery campaigners and defenders of the South’s right to self-determination who happily profited from the struggle.

Eric J. Graham shows how issues of freedom of navigation brought the United Kingdom and the United States to the brink of war. It is a major strength of this well-researched and highly readable book that he manages to weave the varied threads of his story together. 

This is not just an acccount for maritime history enthusiasts but also a major contribution to a little-known aspect of Scottish history and deserves the attention of a wider audience.

The Scots Magazine